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This season’s Rockford IceHogs will be young and hungry

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The IceHogs’ roster lacks experience, but is high on potential.

Erie Otters v Windsor Spitfires Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images

The 2016-17 season for the Chicago Blackhawks did not go as planned after a first-round exit in the playoffs for the second straight year. It was bad. But the result paled in comparison to the poor season that Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate Rockford IceHogs had.

Celebrating their 10th season in the AHL, the IceHogs had little to be joyous about during the 2016-17 campaign. Finishing the season with a 25-39-12 record, the IceHogs failed to reach the 30-win mark for the first time as an AHL club, and their lowest win total since the 2003-04 season. Subsequently, having their worst record in 10 years meant the lowest point total in 10 years, finishing 27th out of 30 teams in the AHL, as well as scoring their fewest amount of goals in 10 years, and allowing their second-highest amount of goals against in 10 years.

Not to be forgotten, head coach Ted Dent was fired just one year after signing a three-year contract extension with the club. There really is only one way for the IceHogs to go in 2017-18: Up.

Key additions and losses

The amount of turnover that teams at the minor-league level experience is nothing new. Faces and places change often and it is the nature of the life that many AHL players experience while trying to break their way into the NHL. For the IceHogs heading into this season, the turnover started last season with the trades of Spencer Abbott, Mark McNeill, and Sam Carrick before the trade deadline. All three players led the IceHogs in scoring up until being dealt, signaling the gutting and renovation of the minor-league system for the Blackhawks organization.

In addition to Carrick, Abbott, and McNeill, the IceHogs’ roster lost a lot of valuable experience:

Key Losses:

  • Jake Dowell - C
  • Lars Johansson - G
  • Pierre-Cedric Labrie - LW
  • Michael Latta - C
  • Tyler Motte - C/LW
  • Ted Dent - Head Coach

While most-to-all of these players did not have a better than 50/50 shot of ever making the Blackhawks NHL roster, their experience and leadership were valuable to the developing youth in the system. But the direction that Chicago needs to head as an organization does not include these kinds of professionals. It’s the business of development, which Chicago hasn’t had the most sparkling record with of late.

It only took one first-round Stanley Cup Playoff exit for Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman to address the need to invest more in internal development and a commitment to Chicago’s youth. The team did just that by giving players like Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, Vinnie Hinostroza, Tanner Kero, and Gustav Forsling extended looks at the NHL level.

Unfortunately, the development wasn’t enough as an even worse first-round exit was in store for the Blackhawks at the end of the season last year and a disastrous year in Rockford came to an end. So as Bowman did the year prior, he made it clear changes needed to be made to get the Blackhawks back on track. Changes on the roster and coaching staff came for both the Blackhawks and IceHogs, and the outlook for next season is both promising and a bit unnerving.

For the IceHogs, their roster will be full of fresh faces come opening night.

Key Additions:

  • A ton of NCAA/CHL Prospects
  • Jean-Francois Berube - G
  • Jan Rutta - D
  • David Kampf - RW
  • Laurent Dauphin - C
  • Jordan Oesterle - D
  • Jeremy Colliton - Head Coach

Starting at the top of the list, and probably what will be the biggest key for Rockford in 2017-18, are the incoming prospects from the Canadian junior ranks and the college hockey scene. Most notably among these prospects are Alex DeBrincat, Matheson Iacopelli, Luc Snuggerud, Graham Knott, Matthew Highmore, Nathan Noel, Darren Raddysh, Collin Delia, and Alexandre Fortin. Just to name a few.

IceHogs roster full of potential

There’s a lot to be excited about among this group of players. DeBrincat, of course, is the main attraction as far as prospects go for the Blackhawks organization. There’s a better than 50/50 chance that DeBrincat will get a majority of his ice-time at the NHL level this season, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him start and/or have extended stays with the IceHogs. Much like Schmaltz and Hinostroza last season, DeBrincat could end up in Rockford to help him get up to speed at the professional level and allow him to find his game without throwing him into the deep end right away.

Same will go for DeBrincat’s Erie Otters teammate, Darren Raddysh. Raddysh had a stellar career in the OHL, a lot like DeBrincat, but his downside comes from being 21-years old and having never played against top-end competition. It was evident in prospect camp that expectations for Raddysh on the defensive end should be tempered and his AHL-only deal will keep him away from Chicago for the time being. Raddysh has plenty of offensive potential, it’ll just take time for him to find it at the professional ranks.

On a more positive defensive note, former Edmonton Oilers defender Jordan Oesterle provides depth to an already thin crop of blue-liners for the Blackhawks organization. Having already spent some time at the NHL level, Oesterle is an AHL vet already and could give the IceHogs a steady presence on the back-end.

College products Iacopelli and Snuggerud saw some ice time with the IceHogs at the end of last season after finishing their college careers and looked impressive in their small sample size at the pro level. More of that is expected from both players after strong showings at prospect camp and both look to continue that momentum into training camp. It wouldn’t be surprising if at some point during the next season that, due to an injuries or just a need for change sees both Iacopelli and Snuggerud crack the NHL roster. But outside shots as of right now.

In net, the organization added three new faces to challenge for backup roles behind Corey Crawford. J.F. Berube, Anton Forsberg, and Collin Delia all joined the Blackhawks organization this offseason and while Forsberg looks to have the first shot behind Crawford, it wouldn’t be surprising if Berube made a run for NHL ice time.

Berube, coming from the odd goaltender situation last season with the New York Islanders, has proven himself a more than competent AHL level goalie and should push Forsberg to excel. Forsberg is in the same boat, having won the 2016 Calder Cup with the Lake Erie Monsters, now the Cleveland Monsters. As for Delia, he only just joined the organization after impressing at prospect camp, but is no slouch having won the 2016-17 NCAA Hockey-East goaltender of the year award. He figures to be in the mix at the AHL level for time between the pipes, and if he and Berube impress at the AHL, it could give the boot to the eldest member of the IceHogs roster at the moment, Jeff Glass.

Finally, two big question players for the IceHogs and Blackhawks are international signees David Kampf and Jan Rutta. With both players coming over from Pirati Chomutov in the Czech Republic professional league, the Hawks hope to find two more European signing successes like they did last year with fellow countryman, Michal Kempny.

Kampf, a 22-year-old winger, is coming off a 31-point season last year and could provide a sizable scoring option on the right wing. As for Rutta, at 27 years old, he pretty much is who he is at this point in his development, but with 60 points in 144 Czech League games, Rutta could be a big-bodied (6’3, 210 pounds) offensive option on the blue line for the IceHogs, unless he’s in the NHL.

There are also players like Fortin, Dauphin, Hinostroza, John Hayden, and Lance Bouma who could bounce between the NHL and AHL next season. The IceHogs will have a ton of youth and, seemingly, a ton of firepower potential. Add in players like Anthony Louis, Luke Johnson, Kyle Baun, Robin Press, and Robin Norell, and the IceHogs will be a much more fun team to watch in 2017-18, at the very least.

It will be a tough season with the amount of professional experience that the IceHogs are losing and in turn not bringing in, but with the amount of upside that the new faces provide, games in Rockford will feel more energetic with a team that has a developmental direction. The AHL Central Division is going to be a meat-grinder next season with defending Calder Cup champions Grand Rapids Griffins looking strong, as well as the Chicago Wolves and Milwaukee Admirals being highly competitive. For the IceHogs, a success will be to get out of the cellar of the division and maybe compete for a playoff spot. Anything above that is gravy for Rockford.